Many people think of happiness as a state of being. Something to strive toward. For this post I want to frame happiness as something else. Think of happiness as the collection of experiences and feelings about which one can experience nostalgia. By viewing it through that lens and doing some brain-exercising, I think that the “state of being” aspect might just happen.
Nostalgia involves longing for and focusing on good things from the past. The “longing for” is not relevant for this discussion. The “focusing on” is very relevant. When you stop viewing happiness as a destination and instead conceptualize it as a manageable collection of specific things, you are handed a degree of control over it. That control rests in your ability to choose what to pay attention to, and in the knowledge that you can choose to focus on and even strengthen the building blocks of your personal well-being.
Like most things in life, happiness is not binary. The present is not always joyous. It is not always melancholy either. And that’s okay. It’s life. It’s beautiful. It’s a blend. Being realistic about the nature of living frees us from the shackles of a binary view of happiness. Seeing shades of grey opens doors. Let’s explore what’s behind one of them.
Chances are that at this very moment you are experiencing a wide variety of emotions, sensations, and even day-dreams. That recognition gives you a neat opportunity: You can choose to make happiness a focus of your attention. Forcing it is okay, and can even work. Here are some ideas: Listen to a song which makes you smile. Sit down with a fruit and enjoy it with no distractions. Color on a piece of paper and admire the appearance of ink, then ponder what it took to get the marker from a manufacturing plant and into your hands.
If you know specific, simple, and reliable things which make you happy, you are equipped with the tools to improve your overall well-being.
Let’s formalize that happiness-choice we just talked about: Set aside a short period of time every day to create, package, and revisit memories of happy experiences. If my experience holds true for you, in less than a week the effects of those few minutes of focusing on happiness will spill over into the rest of your day without any additional effort.
This idea is open to nearly everyone. The only things which would get in the way are anhedonia and certain serious mental illnesses. My pay-grade doesn’t go there.
I do have one caution, however, and that is against the intentional pursuit of extreme joys.
We are mindful beings who inhabit piles of mush called homo sapiens. That latin blob has – over many millennia – evolved some once-helpful drives which are maladaptive in our plentiful 21st century. They revolve around our brain rewarding massive joys from unnatural things such as extremely calorie-dense foods, unhealthy drugs, unhealthy sex, and unhealthy gambling.
I am, of course, begging the question with the word unhealthy. At what point do healthy things become unhealthy? At the point where – as a result – simple and reliable joys are no longer pursued and no longer found to be rewarding. Our brain rewards extreme pleasure so well that it can permit us to lose our pursuit and enjoyment of the smaller and more consistent pleasures in life. Sunsets. Fluffy animals. Making art. Looking at art. Friendships. Immersion in a book. Seem like good things to me.
You can be happy regardless of your life circumstance. Happiness is not a destination, it’s the result of observing and savoring small, sometimes fleeting bits of awesome and wonderful things along life’s journey. It can be developed.
Set aside a few minutes daily to do nothing but immerse your senses in one or two simple, reliable, accessible, and healthy joys. Savor the experience you create, paying attention to your senses and emotions. Bottle up that collection of wonderful so you can revisit it in your mind, and take nostalgia for a spin next time you are in an elevator or a long grocery store checkout line.